Article Date: 12/1/2005

5_05 Viewpoint

Bonuses, Gifts and Other Disasters
Occasionally, bad holiday experiences have nothing to do with the holidays.

At my first job out of college, I didn't receive a holiday bonus. "It wouldn't be fair to scrape together the money for a bonus," our manager reasoned. "After all, it's partly your fault that we couldn't keep down costs." (Soon after, the company found its way to keep costs down when it dismissed a third of the employees.)

I fared slightly better at my second job. The president of the company handed each of us a jar of authentic 100% maple syrup produced in Vermont (or some other New England state known for authenticity). Employees were outraged. Accusations of unfair treatment spread. It was rumored that senior executives received pancake mix with their syrup. During a company meeting, one of the more courageous employees asked the president why he chose to give syrup.

"It's not a bonus," he replied. "My daughter owns a maple tree farm and she sends me 10 cases of maple syrup each year. What else should I do with 10 cases of maple syrup?"

Is it better to give?

I vowed I wouldn't make the same mistakes. In my first middle management position, I invited the staff to a local restaurant for a luncheon, which I paid for out-of-pocket, along with gifts for each employee. In a year when budgets were slashed, lay-offs rumored and morale stymied, my staff would have to be impressed with my gesture. They'd surely then see that the company wasn't so bad. During the lunch, the staff told me how wonderful it was to get together. Success! Or was it? When a few staffers mistakenly thought I was out of earshot, their story changed.

"You know, if the company really wanted to do something for us, they should have just given us the money that the lunch cost."

"I hope he doesn't expect a gift from me."

No gift can save an entire year

The experience was not only embarrassing, but frustrating. Many enterprises spent far less than I did on holiday gifts, some gave nothing at all, yet their employees seemed happier. How did they do it? Why couldn't I do it?

In retrospect, I missed the Big Picture. If an enterprise doesn't hire the right people and treat them well, then no gift or bonus is going to make them happy and productive.

When you foster a work environment that is fair, respectful, challenging and rewarding (both in terms of recognition and monetarily), you're giving a rare and precious gift. Then the holiday gift really doesn't matter. As anyone will tell you: It's the thought that counts. OM

Optometric Management, Issue: December 2005